Poultry Brine Injection: Departments of Agriculture, Trade and Health briefings

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

21 March 2011
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Three departments reported to the Committee in reaction to the public outcry that had been sparked by media reports, during December 2010, about retreatment, reprocessing and injection of high levels of brine into chicken sold in retail stores. The presentations showed that there were different pieces of legislation that impacted on food sales, and that not only were the departments aware of overlapping mandates and different standards around enforcement, but there was lack of sufficient monitoring and control, which meant that acceptable brine levels of 8% were not being followed, and lack of capacity also meant that inspections were generally limited to processing plants rather than further down the value chain. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) outlined the legislation that governed chicken meat, noting that the Quantitative Ingredient Declaration stated that chicken product should contain 92% chicken and 8% water, and this should be specified on the label. This department had commissioned research to determine the extent of the problem with brine injections, and the report would be presented when ready, but preliminary indications showed high moisture and sodium content. This department recommended a review by all three departments of the regulatory regimes, looking to international best practice. The Department of Trade and Industry (dti) outlined that it was more concerned with consumer safety and welfare, accepted the health risks of high salt concentrations in brine, and wanted to ensure that consumers would be able to make an informed decision about their purchase, and would, in future, be able to complain to the Consumer Protection Tribunal. This department should engage in proactive inspections, raise consumer awareness, and pay more attention to regulation of domestic food. The Department of Health (DOH) said that brine injections had been standard worldwide practice for around 25 years, and was intended to enhance taste and preservation. It did, however, concede that more attention should be paid to labelling, health risks and consumer awareness. It cited lack of inspectors and control mechanisms as prime difficulties to monitoring. 

Members expressed concerns that these issues had only been brought to the fore after media investigations, and asked if there were other issues of concern in relation to other foodstuffs. They enquired whether details could be released about transgressions, and while the DAFF said that confidentiality clauses prevented it from releasing this information, the National Regulator for Compulsory Specification claimed that it did name and shame, and this was a most effective deterrent.
Members wished to challenge the claims of enhanced taste by manufacturers, saying that profit maximisation was more likely to be the reason, and stressing that consumers should be given informed choices. A Member suggested that the departments must explore processing without such injections, and proper monitoring at all levels. They were also concerned about the lack of capacity, and questioned the 24 month delay in bringing the labelling requirements fully into force. They enquired about monitoring of the live chicken trade, commented that health inspectors were not visible, questioned communication to rural communities, and noted that the brine content was not in fact being kept within acceptable levels.

A DA Member raised concerns, after the presentations were completed, that the Chairperson had apparently raised issues not contained in the Committee’s approved oversight report on fisher-employment, during his report to the House.


Meeting report

Chairperson’s opening remarks
The Chairperson reminded the Committee that fifteen members needed to be nominated for the National Council; ten names should be submitted by Parliament and five from the industry. Once the nominations were received, the Minister would appoint the selection panel to decide on a shortlist. The Chairperson expressed a wish that the Committee should actively participate in the nomination and selection process, and thus requested Members to lobby or make their own nominations.

Mr L Bosman (DA) agreed with the Chairperson’s desire that Parliament take a more active role, noting that the Committee had wanted the Land Bank Act to be amended to allow for greater involvement by Parliament. The Committee would need to ask the Minister for permission to receive information, comment on applicants, and play some role in compiling the shortlist.

The Chairperson then tabled apologies and noted that he wished, in the following week, to discuss the position of the UCDP Member, who did not attend any meetings, but did not table apologies, and asked the Committee Secretary to obtain more information on this.

Poultry Brine Injection: Departmental briefings
Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) briefing
Dr Boitshoko Ntshabele, Director: Food Safety & Quality Assurance, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, gave some background information, noting that the poultry industry was regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), the Department of Health (DOH), and the National Regulator for Compulsory Specification (NRCS). The Meat Safety Act and Agricultural Products Act were administered by DAFF. The latter, Act 119 of 1990, did not allow for tenderisation of frozen meat. The Department of Health regulated through the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics, and Disinfectants Act, No 54 of 1972. The Quantitative Ingredient Declaration determined the presence of one or more acceptable ingredients in products, and in the case of chicken, this stated that chicken sold should contain 92% chicken and 8% water, and this should be specified on the label.

There were also regulations around brine. Brine injection of chicken presented a problem to the departments, who had commissioned research was commissioned to determine the extent of the problem and to help the departments to find out the chemical composition of what was injected into the chicken. The preliminary results of that study showed that there was high moisture content in the chicken being sold, as well as high sodium concentrations that resulted in nutrient dilution and that presented health risks. The final report was scheduled for production in April 2011.

He suggested that the three departments involved would need to review the current regulatory regime to determine effective regulation of brine injection techniques. Since the practice was also used outside of South Africa, the departments would be looking at international best practices. They were looking forward to finalising the research to determine the most effective measures.

Department of Trade and Industry (dti) and National Regulator for Compulsory Specification (NRCS) briefing.
Mr Stephen Hanival, Chief Director: Agro Processing, Department of Trade and Industry, said that his presentation would focus on the nature of botox chicken, and the media reports that chickens were being reprocessed and reworked. The Department of Trade and Industry (dti) was particularly concerned with consumer safety and welfare. The high salt concentration in brine was posing a health risk, and there were also concerns about quality, and consumers obtaining value for money, as they should be aware that what might be sold as a 1kg chicken was in fact made up of 600g chicken and 400g water. The Department wanted to ensure that the consumers would be able to make an informed decision and be fully aware of what they were buying. Policy tools were contained in the Consumer Protection Act, and section 25(1) of this dealt with disclosure of reconditioned or gray market goods. It had been clear from media reports in December 2010 that consumers were not in fact given full disclosure that would enable them to make an informed decision, although once the Consumer Protection Act was fully in operation, consumers could complain to the Consumer Protection tribunal if they were misled on products.

Mr Hanival noted that policy tools needed to include a check list, and dti needed to engage in proactive inspection of facilities and goods to ensure compliance, include consumer awareness interventions to educate consumers, and raise awareness through campaigns at shop floor levels. There were some challenges around this issue. It was governed by several pieces of legislation and the mandate was spread across the three departments, so enforcement and compliance took place unevenly and at different tiers of government. Food safety units generally were under-resourced, and there was duplication. Although compliance on export products was more rigorously enforced, less attention was paid to domestic food. The departments needed to focus on food safety now. A key objective of the Revised Industrial Action Plan (IPAP2) was to lock in exports and lock out unsafe imports. The dti would like to think about food safety in the broad sense and how South African consumers could buy high quality products.

Department of Health (DOH) Briefing.
Mr Andries Pretorius, Director: Food Control, Department of Health, said that some of his presentation might repeat what DAFF had reported earlier in the year. He noted that this information emanated from a report submitted to Minister of Health, in response to media reports in December 2010. His presentation was based on what was contained in the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act. One issue under scrutiny was thawing of foodstuffs, further processing and refreezing, especially for the chicken, as reported in the media. The current legislation did not allow for this process. In relation to injecting chickens with brine, the DOH was not aware of any particular food safety risks, noting that this technology had been used throughout the world for twenty five years, and in South Africa for twenty years. However, he agreed that it was most important that consumers must be informed that the food they were buying had gone through such processes.

Industry noted that injecting the chicken with brine was done to enhance the taste experience of consumer. Other regulations dealt with preservatives and thickness. The three categories of meat covered by regulation included raw unprocessed meat, processed meat, and raw processed meat without retreatment. Chicken products fell under raw processed meat without retreatment. The quantitative ingredient declaration was applicable to the presence of brine. The DOH thought that injecting with chicken with brine before freezing was not a transgression, although the labeling needed to be accurate. However, there were some nutritional concerns about the high salt content, and he agreed with concerns about value for money raised by the dti if consumers were not correctly informed about nutrient content. DOH was in full support of DAFF’s current initiatives and directly participated in the process of setting specific standards for the products, to prevent consumers from being misled.

Discussion
The Chairperson expressed dissatisfied that such matters only came to light after media exposure. He was also concerned about the impact of legislation.

The Chairperson asked if the South African Bureau for Standards was linked with NRCS.

Mr N Du Toit (DA) remarked that he was aware of the problem. He explained the preparation process in a chicken processing plant from beginning to end. There were three important considerations: temperature, which would need to drop so that spores could not form and multiply, weighing the cleaned and dressed chicken, and regulation of the whole process. He pointed out that weight could be adjusted, as companies often requested chickens of certain sizes and weight. Government either needed to look into these whole processes itself, or to get one of the consumer companies to do so.

Ms N Phaliso (ANC) echoed the Chairperson’s concerns that this would not have come to light without media reports. She also expressed concern that government departments were working in silos, without any intergovernmental body to deal with such issues. She asked what monitoring tools were in place to control the situation, and what communication strategy was in place for departments to convey information to the public, including rural dwellers who had limited means of accessing information.

Mr Bosman asked if the companies concerned with the brine injections had been shown by any of the investigations to have transgressed the rules. He was disappointed that local standards were neglected, whilst more attention was paid to export goods, and wondered if there was not a role for health inspectors. He asked if issues around labelling and expiry dates were also examined.

Ms N Twala (ANC) echoed the concerns of her colleagues that these issues were raised only through media intervention, and cited that millions of people could not afford more expensive meats, and were facing health risks from excessive salt. She asked DAFF to forward the report of the research to the Committee.

Mr R Cebekhulu (IFP) asked if the departments were also monitoring the live chicken trade.

Ms R Nyalungu (ANC) asked why the health inspectors were no longer visible in the community, and repeated earlier questions about communicating information to people in the rural areas.

The Chairperson cited other media reports concerning selling of expired foods, and asked what monitoring tools existed for such cases, particularly in the rural communities. He also enquired about the current status of health inspectors.

The Chairperson asked if the brine injection of chicken in South Africa conformed to the acceptable levels of 8%, as he had heard that it was sometimes as high as 60%. He asked what the world-wide norms were.

The Chairperson was concerned about the proposal to extend timeframes around this for a further twenty four months, as these were urgent issues, and he would have thought that 12 months was more appropriate.  He asked that the Departments forward the results of the research to the Committee.

A DAFF representative responded that once the report had been approved by the Minister, the DAFF would again brief the Committee. He noted that end-point inspections were not used elsewhere as best practice, and that these did not work, because inspections looked at food safety, while these issues arose during the value chain. The DAFF was looking at a new approach of having a hygiene management system at each production level of manufacturer, grower, abattoir, processor and other value chain players. A subcommittee had also been formed already to work together on the issues, and DAFF needed to understand all issues to make appropriate regulations. DAFF appreciated that the Committee needed to be kept informed. The research was being finalised, and communication strategies had been built in.

DAFF reported that there had been a number of companies identified as having transgressed. The DAFF had sent out a team of inspectors to the plans, and the companies had been issued with instructions to correct certain practices. It was hoped that DAFF, learning lessons from this, could put proactive steps in place for holding periodic surveys that would give advance warning of potential problems in the food safety system, so that they did not again get to a point where the media isolated the problems before the Department. DAFF was enforcing wherever it had inspectors, but unfortunately did not have coverage over the whole country, although it had sent inspectors further afield more recently.

DAFF responded that in USA, brine content was generally 12%, and the report would look at other countries’ practices.

Mr Hanival, dti, added that the best information so far from the studies undertaken by NRCS revealed that concentrations of brine were way above 8%, up to unacceptable levels.

Mr Pretorius explained that in the Department of Health, the formerly-named health inspectors were now referred to as Environmental Health Practitioners (EHPs), and they were employed by DOH at provincial and municipal levels. They were general practitioners, and food inspection was only part of their duties.

Mr Pretorius said that there was currently no legislation regulating or forcing manufacturers and retailers to put an expiry date on their product, and where these dates appeared, they were inserted voluntarily. New regulations would require “best before” dates for food stuffs. Chicken would require display of a “use by” date.

Ms Phaliso interrupted Mr Pretorius at this point, raising a point of order that DOH should not be permitted to continue to present, as no written information had been received. She expressed her frustration that some EHPs had indicated to her that they were not aware of what Mr Pretorius was saying, which clearly indicated that they had not been fully capacitated.

The Chairperson ruled that the DoH should conclude its response, to assist the Committee in monitoring implementation.

Mr Pretorius apologised profusely to Ms Phaliso, explaining that his invitation to attend this meeting had been received very late, so there was not enough time to prepare a full presentation.

Ms Phaliso accepted this apology.

Mr Pretorius continued that there were 2 500 registered EHPs, who were not dealing only with food, but ideally South Africa needed to have between 5 000 and 6 000 EHPs.

Mr Pretorius commented that the extension of time within which companies had to insert date markings was granted since industry had complained that it did not have enough time to comply.

The Chairperson asked what information labels should display.

Mr Hanival, dti, said that, in response to complaints of the silo approach, government departments usually worked well in reaction to issues, but that a more proactive approach was needed. There were overlapping mandates and duplication. His Department was mainly concerned with compliance and protecting consumers.

Ms Marianna Mareweck, Executive: Research and Development, NRCS, noted that 80/20 principles applied when enforcing the Trade Metrology Act. There was focus on the value chain prior to the marketplace. The NRCS was understaffed, and this was the reason why it had to focus on process prior to market, to alleviate the burden that end-point inspection would impose. The aim was to build quality into products before release, and ensure that the products were of safe quality. The NRCS also looked at packaging, to ensure that labeling was in line with the legislation.

Another NRCS representative explained that the NRCS monitored whole chicken processes, so that after chilling, the chicken would be weighed, the injections monitored, as well as the cooling and thawing processes. After chilling, chickens generally picked up 7% to 10% from start weight, but chicken pieces were 33% heavier after chilling, and 29% heavier after freezing, and 19% after thawing. Some cases showed a weight increase of 50%, which did pose great problems.

The Chairperson commented that this was a most serious matter.

Mr Du Toit also commented that these figures were shocking. He did not agree that there was any need to inject chickens, either to enhance taste or to preserve, and said that the producer should not be able to dictate how a chicken should taste. Instead, he believed that injection was primarily intended to enhance weight, and he suggested that inspections should take place at various points.

The Chairperson agreed that perhaps profit maximization, rather than taste and flavour, were prime considerations.

Mr Ntshabele reiterated that 8% was an allowable concentration, but lack of regulation had resulted in concentrations reaching as high as 60%. He agreed that consumers should be informed of what was allowed, and be permitted to make their own choices.

Mr Pretorius noted that after the media reports, he had studied supermarket labels, and had noted that they did indicate where the product was not 100% chicken, and these packs were cheaper than fresh portions. However, new regulations would require labels to be clearer, and displayed on the front of the packaging.

The Chairperson asked if this was the only area of concern.

Mr Du Toit asked how a consumer could verify the percentages claimed by the manufacturers, and urged the departments to use wider inspection systems.

Ms Phaliso asked why those misleading the public were not named and shamed.

Mr Ntshabele said that unfortunately the DAFF legislation prevented release of information, due to confidentiality issues.

Mr Hanival said that dti had a different approach, and NRCS had mandates from different departments to regulate different products, and so far there was full compliance, as naming and shaming were part of the process and had proven to be effective deterrents.

Mr Hanival reminded Members that if regulations were not being properly enforced, business would take advantage. The dti was looking at other products, noting that although South Africa produced its own high-quality olive oil, it tended to be overshadowed by imported oils that were not pure olive.

Ms R Nyalungu (ANC) asked about specific strategies for raising awareness in rural areas, and asked what exactly was being done around compliance, referring to 2007 figures of 302 inspectors, which had increased to 504 one year later, and asking if this was enough. She would support a food agency to look into all food related issues.

Mr Pretorius said that DOH was also concerned with high salt content in pasta and bread.

The Chairperson asked that the draft regulations should be provided by the DOH and urged all departments to deal with issues timeously.

Other Committee Business
Mr Bosman said that he wanted to discuss report-backs, reminding Members that the procedure adopted in the past was that they would discuss issues during meetings, then go on oversight and jointly agree upon what should be presented to the House. During the previous week the DA had been shocked by the way in which the Chairperson had misused his opportunity to present a report in the House, not even referring to the report but instead expressing political views on farm workers working without benefit, which were not factually correct. He called upon the Chairperson, in future, to stick to the report contents, otherwise the DA would be putting forward a motion of no confidence in the Chairperson and writing a letter to the Speaker.

Ms Phaliso disagreed, saying she did not know why this was an issue, as the Chairperson had reported truthfully on what had been picked up during oversight, and saying that he was free to raise issues.

Mr Du Toit said that the Committee had embarked on the trip to find out something, and had been looking too hard to find something wrong with one company, which turned out to be a Level 3 Black Economic Empowerment company. He agreed that what was said was not in line with the content of the report. If Members wished to discuss something further, then they must do so during debate.

Ms Twala did not understand what the problem was.

The Chairperson said that there were two issues covered in the Committee’s report. One noted that many of the employees in the fishing industry were casual workers, without benefits. The other was fronting that was raised by members of the community.

Mr Bosman said that he was raising this point because these were in fact not general or widespread issues. The Chairperson had claimed that farm workers were not paying unemployment insurance fund contributions or paying into pension funds, and this was not true. He was the Chairperson of the Agricultural Fund, and thus knew that thousands of farm workers were paying into it. He reiterated his request that the Chairperson should not deviate, in future, from what was contained in the report.

Ms Phaliso said that the issue was not really about defending the position of the Portfolio Committee, but about exposing the realities on the ground.

The Chairperson said that he would give the Committee a report on the fronting cases, indicating action against one company.

The meeting
was adjourned.


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